Finally an article about Portugal. It’s one of my absolute favorite countries. Which is why I usually spend a month or two there every year. No matter the reason, or your residency, this article will tell you everything you need to know about opening your first (absolutely free) Portuguese bank account.
But first, let’s take a step back.
Why open a Portuguese bank account?
Well, most people probably shouldn’t.
But if any of the following reasons resonate with you, then maybe you should.
It’s easy to open for non-residents
Many countries make it quite hard to open bank accounts. That’s true for popular financial centers like Singapore and Hong Kong. And it’s true for lots for countries in the EU, too.
One of the major drawbacks of the Estonian E-residency, for example, is the difficulty of opening a bank account for a non-resident in the country. It’s far from impossible, just not as straight forward as both my fellow E-residents and the Estonian government would have liked.
But I digress.
As you will soon see, Portugal is one of the easiest countries to open a bank account for a non-resident in the EU.
It’s part of SEPA and is denominated in euro
Say what you want about the stability of EU and their controversial currency. But it still remains one of the strongest currencies in the world. And it can be used across the entire eurozone (19 EU member states) plus in ten other states and territories.
Plus, there’s nothing stopping you from using a Portuguese bank account as your main bank account elsewhere in the eurozone. By law, SEPA (Single Euro Payments Area) transfers between EU countries will have the same cost (often €0) and transfer speeds as domestic ones. Even direct debits work the same across the entire block.
Low maintenance and transaction costs
Although most banks in Portugal have started charging an increasing amount of fees in the last few years, some don’t charge you any ongoing costs at all.
Most usage in the eurozone, including regular activities like card use (POS), ATM withdrawals, SEPA transfers, is also free of charge with these banks.
If you are looking for a bank account and debit card to use outside of the eurozone, N26 is probably a better option than the traditional Portuguese banks. They also support quick remote account openings, have extremely low international fees, and will ship your card to Portugal or elsewhere in Europe. The account is “domiciled” in Germany however, and you’ll miss out on the final perk of Portuguese accounts: Multibanco access.
Full Multibanco access: Portuguese ATM and debit transactions
If you have ever been to Portugal, you might be familiar with their unique Multibanco system.
It started with their ATMs in 1985, followed by a national debit card system in 1987 (formally known as Pagamento Automático MB).
While ATMs in Portugal act like normal ATMs when you use a foreign debit or credit card (facilitating cash withdrawals), slide in a Portuguese card and be prepared to have your mind blown.
There’s almost no limit to the operations you can do at a Multibanco ATM.
Top up your prepaid phone plan? Sure, no problem.
Pay your utilities or online shopping orders? Of course you can!
What about buying concert tickets? What do you think? Well, duh…
Although perfect in most ways, one of my major gripes with Portugal is that you still need to carry around cash. Lots of shops, bars and restaurants don’t accept international credit cards, nor Maestro which is common in other parts of Europe.
Turns out, most of these establishments still accept Portuguese debit cards with the MB logo.
That might not mean much if you never spend time in Portugal. But if you do, it’s huge. Since getting a Portuguese bank account myself, I can now use a debit card for approximately 90% of the transactions I previously had to carry around cash for.
I realize not everyone hates cash as much as I do, but still.
You’re investing in Portugal
Perhaps you’re planning to retire in Portugal in a few years time, and currently in the process of scoping out real estate? Or maybe you’re investing in the country to qualify for the popular Portugal Golden Visa program?
In either case, you’ll need a bank account.
So, how do I open an account as a non-resident?
As mentioned above, I recommend ActivoBank and will be using it for this guide.
There are a few reasons why I recommend Activo:
- Low fees (no monthly fees, free to use in the eurozone)
- Most information as well as online banking available in both Portuguese and English.
- They have well located branches, including one in Chiado, Lisbon. The staff speaks excellent English.
- They are a subsidiary of the largest private bank in Portugal (BCP) which means you can deposit cash in all of Millennium BCP’s ATMs
- It’s a paperless bank, so they won’t send you all sorts of annoying mail
- The people I asked in Portugal all recommended the bank
Another bank with a similar cost structure is Banco CTT (CTT is the Portuguese postal service), but one big drawback is the lack of an English language website and online banking facilities.
So for the rest of this guide, I will be presenting the steps for opening an account with ActivoBank.
What you’ll need
You will need the following to open and use your account:
- A phone number capable of receiving SMS
- Pay slips/proof of income or similar that states your profession or job title
- A NIF (Número de Identificação Fiscal). Don’t worry, it’s easy to get one.
- Proof of Portuguese address or foreign address
- Get on a flight to Portugal if you’re not already there.
- Get a NIF, if you don’t have one. It’s quick, easy, and free.
- Apply for an Activo account online (although you could skip this step and just show up in a branch instead).
The steps are in Portuguese, so just use Google Translate if you need help.
In the step where you’re given the option to upload the documentation, just select that you’ll bring it with you to the branch instead.
- Go to a branch with 4 pieces of documentation:
- Proof of income should ideally state your profession
- Proof of address can be almost anything (sim card delivery note, foreign bank statement, customs forms)
- Passport as ID
- NIF document from Finanças
Also bring 250 EUR in cash, or withdraw it there (to deposit into the new account).
That’s it. You should be walking out of the branch in 10-15 minutes with a new debit card in your hand.
Can I use an international or virtual phone number?
Yes, as long as it’s capable of receiving SMS (international and/or virtual numbers like Google Voice also work)
What if my pay slips don’t state my job title or profession?
You’ll probably be fine. My pay slips do no explicitly state so either, but the friendly branch staff still let me open the account. They are generally very helpful and seem much more willing to overlook small details like that compared to most bank staff I’ve encountered around the world.
Will I have to show any official proof of residency, visas, or anything similar?
No. If you are registering with a Portuguese address you just need your NIF document (can list a non-Portuguese address) and some sort of proof of the Portuguese address. If you are registering with a foreign address you need your NIF, proof of the foreign address, as well as your tax number in that country (you don’t need proof of it, you just need to know it).
Can I later change the address on my account?
Yes, although you can currently only change your official address in person in a branch. The same, unfortunately, goes for your phone number. You can, however, change your mailing address online.
What time is best to visit a branch?
Unfortunately, since I wrote the first version of this article in 2017, ActivoBank’s branches have become increasingly crowded. I recommend showing up when they open in the morning (usually 10 am).
Their ticketing system is a bit unusual: You enter your phone number on a giant screen in the waiting area, and then you will receive your ticket number via SMS. They will then send you another SMS when there are only a few people left before you in line.
I recommend bringing your laptop and settling down at nearby café to get some work done while you wait for the second SMS, as the wait can be substantial (often several hours later in the day).
You may be better off visiting a branch outside the main city centers, although the employees in e.g. Lisbon/Chiado and Porto might be more used to assisting foreigners and non-residents.